DALLAS – A “breach of protocol” at the hospital where Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan was treated before his death led to the infection of a health-care worker with the deadly virus, and other caregivers could potentially be exposed, federal health officials said Sunday.
The hospital worker – a woman who was not identified by officials – wore protective gear while treating the Liberian patient, and she has been unable to point to how the breach might have occurred, said Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Duncan was the first person in the U.S. diagnosed with Ebola.
The CDC confirmed Sunday afternoon that the woman had tested positive for Ebola – the first known case of the disease being contracted or transmitted in the U.S.
The missteps with the first patient and now the infection of a caregiver raised questions about assurances given by U.S. health officials that any American hospital should be able to treat an Ebola patient, and that the disease would be contained.
At a briefing in Atlanta, Frieden said that at some point during Duncan’s treatment, “there was a breach in protocol, and that breach in protocol resulted in this infection.” He added that officials were “deeply concerned” by the infection of the worker.
President Barack Obama asked the CDC to move as quickly as possible in investigating the incident, the White House said.
Dallas police stood guard outside her apartment complex and told people not to go inside. Officers also knocked on doors, made automated phone calls and passed out fliers to notify people within a four-block radius about the situation, although Dallas authorities assured residents the risk was confined to those who have had close contact with the two Ebola patients.
The worker wore a gown, gloves, mask and shield while she cared for Duncan during his second visit to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, said Dr. Daniel Varga of Texas Health Resources, which runs the hospital.
Duncan, who arrived in the U.S. from Liberia to visit family Sept. 20, first sought medical care for fever and abdominal pain Sept. 25. He told a nurse he had traveled from Africa, but he was sent home. He returned Sept. 28 and was placed in isolation because of suspected Ebola. He died Wednesday.
Liberia is one of the three West African countries most affected by the Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 4,000 people, according to World Health Organization figures published Friday. The others are Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Texas health officials have been closely monitoring nearly 50 people who had or may have had close contact with Duncan in the days after he started showing symptoms but before he was diagnosed with the disease.
The health-care worker reported a fever Friday night as part of a self-monitoring regimen required by the CDC, Varga said.
Another person who was described as a “close contact” of the health worker has been proactively placed in isolation, he added, without elaborating on where that person is being monitored. The hospital said its emergency department is diverting ambulances to other hospitals, though still accepting walk-in patients.
Frieden said officials are now evaluating and will monitor any workers who may have been exposed while Duncan was in the hospital.